Beer 101: Beer Styles


Part 3 – Beer Styles

When I set out to write this section of our Beer 101 series, I knew I was in for some work. There are nearly infinite styles of beer, and as the popularity of craft brewing has grown, we’ve seen a resurgence of near dead styles, the creation of new styles, and the advent of ‘imperial’ beer. That said, I want to give an overview of some of the most common styles and highlight a few of the more exotic beers so you can understand the scope of variety among beer styles.

Lager – This is the style we learned in high school, courtesy of the big American breweries and the most popular style of beer in the world. While some would call beer like Budweiser a pilsner, a pilsner is typically defined by a slight hoppy bitterness that cuts a portion of the malt character typical to lager-style beer. The distinction is very slight – after all, pilsner is a type of lager. The cold fermentation process used to create lager beer yields a nice, crisp flavor with a slight aftertaste.

Ale – This is going to be a more substantial subheading than lager because there are so many varieties of ‘ales’ in the world. Ale is widely defined as a malted barley beer, brewed with top-fermenting, fast-acting yeast that yields a sweet and fruity character, a bright, floral aroma and full-bodied mouthfeel. There are virtually endless varieties of ale, so we’ll only discuss a few.

Pale Ale – This is the beer known as a ‘bitter’ or ‘English bitter.’ It’s brewed with pale barley malt, typically a low- to mid-gravity brew with a highly complex finish. The flavor in pale ale is often heavily defined by the malt, and the best pale ales use the very best English or European malts. American malts are fine for lighter lager beers that are less about flavor and more about mouthfeel, but if you want some real character, you need better malt. Pale ales also have a bright aroma, thanks to the low-alpha hops added at the end of the brewing process. Low-alpha hops can be added in large quantities to impart some flavor on the beer without adding too much bitterness to your brew. I realize almost everything I’ve said here has been contradictory, so I’ll just say this: pale ales are all about balance.

Abbey/Trappist Ale – I group abbey ale and Trappist ale together because the brewing process and end product is nearly identical, the difference being that Trappist beers are brewed in Trappist monasteries by Trappist monks. This style of beer is top-fermented and often sweet and high in alcohol content. Some of the sweetness comes from the spices or candy sugar you can typically find in this style, and the rest comes from the alcohol. Perhaps the most prominent abbey ale is AB In-Bev’s Leffe, an amber-colored ale with a supersweet finish. Among the Trappist ales are Orval, Koningshoeven, Westvleteren, and of course, Chimay.

India Pale Ale (IPA) – The IPA has seen serious growth in popularity in America over the past decade. Brewers seem to be constantly releasing some epic IPA or another every month or two. The IPA style was invented so that beer could sustain long, oceanic voyages. The high hop content essentially safeguarded the beer against contaminants and also imparted delightful complexity with prolonged cellaring. IPAs are bitter to the max, though many also have a smooth, citrusy finish that pairs well with a wide variety of food.

Lambic – Lambics are a beer all their own. This brew is made using wild yeasts instead of cultivated ones, which can yield some interesting differences from batch to batch. Many lambics are also brewed with a portion of unmalted barley, which gives off a sour aftertaste not unlike a dry white wine. Lambics have been popularized in recent years by adding fruit sugar to cut the sour, funky taste of the beer. If you know anyone who drinks ‘Framboise,’ they’re really a Lambic drinker, though the Lindeman’s version is pretty far from the traditional style.

Wheat Beer – Wheat beer technically belongs to the ale category, but it has its own subset of special rules, and there are enough differences for it to stand alone. Wheat beers are, as you might have guessed, brewed with wheat malt, though they still contain malted barley. These beers are typically top-fermented and often appear hazy as the yeast settles during bottling and kegging. The most common styles of wheat beer are Belgian witbier (Belgian white ale) and German-style wheat. A witbier often employs unmalted wheat and spices – coriander, organe peel, and lemon zest are all popular – while a German-style white follows stricter guidelines: no spices, top fermentation only, and tightly controlled malt combinations.

That does it for our Beer 101: Beer Styles section. I could go on and on about styles I didn’t have space to mention. If you’re interested, dig around the web. There is a ton of information out there. If you’re just joining, be sure to head back through the past couple weeks for posts on the history of brewing and an overview of the brewing process. Next week we’re on to pouring and appreciation and in two weeks we’ll cover some guidelines for pairing beer with food.


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